My recent post on the differences between Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy stirred the ire of Cyril Jenkins, whose response has now been reprinted on a number of Orthodox blogs. He makes a number of claims that are problematic, but among them is a particularly vexing canard about the doctrine of justification that I hear most often in Roman Catholic apologetics, though it appears that it has migrated to Orthodox circles as well. The argument goes like this: The Catholic/Orthodox apologist will say, “Do you know that there is only one place in all of Scripture where the phrase ‘justification by faith alone’ is used?” “No, I did not realize that,” replies the unsuspecting Protestant. “Where is that verse, pray tell? In Romans? Or Galatians?” “Why no,” says the apologist. “It’s James 2:24, which says, ‘A man is justified by works and not by faith alone.’ So you see, the only place in the Bible where this phrase is used, it is being refuted.” “Wow,” replies the unbelievably biblically ignorant Protestant. “I never saw that verse there before! I guess I can earn my salvation after all! Semipelagianism rules! Thanks for setting me straight.”
I have pointed out before that if you read verse 24 in the context of the rest of the chapter, it actually affirms the doctrine of justification by faith alone rather than rejecting it. But leaving that aside for the moment, let us examine the claim that this is the only place in the New Testament where justification by faith alone is mentioned.
If we are going to look for New Testament evidence of the doctrine of Justification by faith alone, it would help to know what that doctrine actually teaches. Article XI tells us that “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings.” Faith is not the cause of our justification. Christ is. The heart of the doctrine of justification is that human beings are so corrupted by sin right from the start that we have no ability to save ourselves, no ability to bridge the gap that exists between God and us. Or, as Article X puts it, “The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and calling upon God.” We cannot climb up to God, so He comes to us, dying in our place and covering us with His righteousness, changing us from the inside out. Faith, understood primarily not just as belief but as trust, is the instrument through which we receive that covering. Faith is not a decision that we make to follow Jesus, but a gift that God gives to those whom He has elected.
So is this idea, that Christ alone is the source of our salvation, absent from the New Testament? Hardly. The great expositor of this teaching is Paul. It is difficult to read more than a few lines of Paul without encountering it. For example, Romans 3:20-26 says this:
For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.
This is, of course, seven verses instead of one, but sometimes Scripture requires more than one verse to say something, particularly given that at the time that Paul wrote this letter he was not separating it into verses. Still, if a pithier example is preferred, we could turn to Galatians 2:16 which says:
Yet we who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified.
Just one verse, but it’s a pretty long verse, so perhaps we would be better off with something like Ephesians 2:8, which says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” Nice, simple, to the point, and if we really want to drive it home we could throw in verse 9 which adds, “not because of works, lest any man should boast.” There’s stuff like this all over the Pauline corpus.
If Paul is not your cup of tea, though, there is always Peter who says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). Or John, who says, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Or even James, who says, “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” But if all else fails, we could always just go with Jesus, who makes reference to the doctrine in this little obscure passage:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God. (John 3:16-21)
Far from being a doctrine invented by the Reformers, the doctrine of justification by faith alone finds light throughout the Scriptures. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox apologists are able to score points by saying that James 2:24 is the only place where the phrase “justification by faith alone” is used. But it’s a word game, a sleight of hand used to hide the fact that they have no answer for the many places in the Bible in which this doctrine is made manifest. It is much easier, presumably, to cherry pick a verse that sounds like it validates your position than to dig into the vast swaths of Scripture that slowly and carefully provide the details of a doctrine that you do not want to accept. Ironically, this is also the approach of many American Evangelicals who cut the Bible up into bite size chunks that support any number of contradictory ideas rather than allowing the Word of God to speak for itself.
Of course, the real tragedy is that the symmetry between this doctrine and the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox understandings of justification and sanctification are not as far apart as Reformation era rhetoric (from both Protestants and Roman Catholics) would lead us to believe. Both Anglicans and some streams of Lutherans have an implicit understanding of theosis, as exemplified by figures like Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, and even Luther himself. And the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation shows how ecumenical dialogue and the evolving understanding of both traditions has laid to rest the divisiveness of this issue. Yet the apologists continue to pounce on it, trying to stir up again the very battles that led to the fracturing of the Church centuries ago. There is plenty that can be accomplished through dialogue and even vigorous debate on these issues. We should, by all means, hold each other accountable. But word games are a cheap trick that accomplishes nothing. We get nowhere by assuming that our debate partners are stupid.